How con artists scam the elderly in the digital age


Scammers, hackers, and fraudsters have attempted to exploit our lack of knowledge both on and offline. Unfortunately, senior citizens have been on the short end of the stick for a while, making them the most targeted groups among all others.

A report published by Deloitte estimates that scammers steal almost $2.9 billion per year from seniors along. The main reason elders have a huge target painted on their backs is mainly due to being less familiar with technology.

Why seniors?

These senior citizens are usually approached in a myriad of ways such via telephone, in person conversations, or online through emails, or various social media platforms.

According to a report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), senior citizens are particularly vulnerable to certain types of fraud. Scammers prey on the elderly for a variety of reasons.

Let’s jump right in.

1. Money

Fraudsters target elders for the same reason banks get robbed: that’s where the money is.

Everything from life savings, bank accounts, mortgages, or social security, as most elders tend to own their own homes. According to a 2017 Federal Reserve study, the average net worth for American households headed by someone age 65 and older is $1.067 million — 1.5 times as high as the average for all households.

However, it’s not always well-off elders aren’t always the main prey for scammers. A 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation report calculates that 14 percent of all seniors are living in poverty. Scams that target the elderly take in many people living on fixed incomes who can’t afford the financial loss.

2. Exploiting their trust

Be them rich, poor, or belong to the middle class, its not a secret that senior citizens are lonely and yearn for companionship. The older these senior citizens become, the more likely they’ll be isolated due to their friends and families either dying or move into nursing homes.

This yearn for companionship makes them easy prey for con artists, which gives them an easier way to worm their way into someone’s trust for illicit reasons.

One needs to keep in mind, that the baby boomer generation (or people born in or before the 1960s) are usually more inclined to trust strangers, as their upbringing taught them to be polite, while assuming that others are being honest.

This makes them less willing to interrupt a sales pitch or hang up on a scammer.

3. Forgetfulness

According to a 2018 report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), senior citizens are more likely to report scams than younger people. However, con artists know that even if their elderly victims report the crime, there’s a good chance they won’t remember the details.

This causes problems with local law enforcement, as elders find it difficult to provide detailed descriptions to help track down the perpetrators, especially if a certain time period has passed since the victims were conned.  

4. Targeting their needs

The most common scamming tactic is by approaching the victim with something that they need, such as Social Security or healthcare, and fake investments in the hopes of cashing on some retirement money.

Common schemes

With the elderly population growing and seniors racking up more than $3 billion in losses annually, elder fraud is likely to be a growing problem, this has attracted the attention of many law enforcements agencies around the world.

There are several common ways scammers can attempt to fool senior citizens; to combat this ongoing trend, the FBI has named June 15 to be the World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, which is dedicated to raising awareness about the millions of older adults who experience elder abuse, neglect, and financial exploitation.

In parallel, the FBI compiled a list of schemes that the elderly need to keep an eye for to evade being conned.

Let’s jump right in.

  • Romance scam: Criminals pose as interested romantic partners on social media or dating websites to capitalize on their elderly victims’ desire to find companions.
  • Tech support scam: Criminals pose as technology support representatives and offer to fix non-existent computer issues. The scammers gain remote access to victims’ devices and sensitive information.
  • Grandparent scam: Criminals pose as a relative—usually a child or grandchild—claiming to be in immediate financial need.
  • Government impersonation scam: Criminals pose as government employees and threaten to arrest or prosecute victims unless they agree to provide funds or other payments.
  • Sweepstakes/charity/lottery scam: Criminals claim to work for legitimate charitable organizations to gain victims’ trust. Or they claim their targets have won a foreign lottery or sweepstake, which they can collect for a “fee.”
  • Home repair scam: Criminals appear in person and charge homeowners in advance for home improvement services that they never provide.
  • TV/radio scam: Criminals target potential victims using illegitimate advertisements about legitimate services, such as reverse mortgages or credit repair.
  • Family/caregiver scam: Relatives or acquaintances of the elderly victims take advantage of them or otherwise get their money.
  • Bogus Covid-19-related products and services: During the pandemic, con artists have taken advantage of people’s fears of Covid-19 by attempting to sell senior citizens “coronavirus test kits” in an attempt to collect credit card or banking information. While others falsely advertising products, such as fake drugs, vaccines, and devices, that claim to prevent or cure Covid-19.

How to protect yourself

Protecting one’s self from a scam can be easy to debunk, it just needs a little patience and research; thus, according to the FBI here are the most optimal ways of seeing through the lies and deceitfulness of scammers:

  • Search online for the contact information (name, email, phone number, addresses) and the proposed offer. Other people have likely posted information online about individuals and businesses trying to run scams.
  • Resist the pressure to act quickly. Scammers create a sense of urgency to produce fear and lure victims into immediate action. Call the police immediately if you feel there is a danger to yourself or a loved one.
    Be cautious of unsolicited phone calls, mailings, and door-to-door services offers.
  • Never give or send any personally identifiable information, money, jewelry, gift cards, checks, or wire information to unverified people or businesses.
  • Make sure all computer anti-virus and security software and malware protections are up to date. Use reputable anti-virus software and firewalls.
  • Disconnect from the internet and shut down your device if you see a pop-up message or locked screen. Pop-ups are regularly used by perpetrators to spread malicious software. Enable pop-up blockers to avoid accidentally clicking on a pop-up.
  • Be careful what you download. Never open an email attachment from someone you don’t know and be wary of email attachments forwarded to you. Take precautions to protect your identity if a criminal gains access to your device or account. Immediately contact your financial institutions to place protections on your accounts and monitor your accounts and personal information for suspicious activity.

The key to unravelling a scam if your loved one has been approached by a con artist is to make them feel comfortable enough to talk about, since most senior citizens feel embarrassed to talk about or report the crime.

Talking about the matter not only helps them understand the matter even more, but also aids local law enforcement to contain any potential damage that may have occurred, or if they’re lucky enough prevent it all together. 

As technological advancements keep emerging, hackers, scammers and the like will always find more sophisticated ways of tricking us, which is why we must remain vigilant regarding our online activities, while constantly educating ourselves and our elderly loved ones to evade these malicious online behaviors.